written by Ben Guerechit
The best of 2007 lists have been flowing like a mad current the last two weeks. The blogosphere is starting to reach its saturation point. If you don’t believe me check out Largehearted Boy’s master list. So I sayâ€¦ why not toss another log on that fire? At least we can keep her burning until the bean counters at KEXP get their listener-voted countdown together. Plus, this isn’t even a list. Just one album. I won’t say it was the best album of the year, but it got tossed into my pile of bests. I’ve never been good at putting the 1-10 stamp on my selections. My motto: it’s better to include many than to favor one. With that, let’s move on to one of the best: Bettye LaVette‘s Scene of the Crime.
The first time I got word of this album was while listening to Kevin Cole one July afternoon, as he tossed queries in the direction of Drive-By Trucker‘s band leader, Patterson Hood. When asked about other projects, Hood seemed to become giddy with excitement at the chance to mention the band’s collaboration with second-hand soul slinger, Bettye LaVette. Two months later (September 25) LaVette released The Scene of the Crime, an album that slayed you in your footsteps and burned you in your tracks. For weeks, I couldn’t help but hit the repeat button to death. This is a style of music that, quite frankly, has been recently limited to spotty reminiscing stalwarts from the glory days who just don’t have the raw power they used to, or new hacks who don’t have the chops and so must steal the sounds from the past. However, what LaVette and the Truckers have put together here takes the unrefined soul of the 60’s and puts an outlaw country-fried edge to it, creating something that has the kind of rough edge that can dig into your skin and leave you with a scar worth boasting over.
The scene of this crime is the connection that fixes the unlikely pairing. Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the very place where 30 years ago LaVette with the help of Fame studio men, Spooner Oldham and David Hood (yes, Hood, as in Patterson’s father) layed down the tracks for the Atlantic release that was to be LaVette’s big break. Atlantic pulled the plug at the last minute and left LaVette to fend for herself. This was just one notch in the belt of the rough and tumble recording career of which she recalls with victorious glee on “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette).” This is the only song from The Scene of the Crime written by LaVette, with help from Hood.
The rest of the tracks emulating from this record are mostly re-workings of lost tunes. LaVette has taken each song and infused it with a hint of tortured soul and a dash of loving maternity, generating a new kind of ownership. The best example of this comes on “Pick Up My Pieces,” written by Willie Nelson, but seemingly for LaVette. On this track, the Truckers opt for simplicity with a stretched out bass line, brushed high hat, subtle piano chords and just the right amount of the high and lonesome sound of the steel guitar to create the sundown trail backdrop for her to lament over.
Two more heart-ripping, drink-yourself-to-death melodies come from Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers” and “Choices,” an old George Jones staple written by Mike Curtis and Billy Yates. Once again LaVette makes these songs her own drenching them with the sorrow of her well-worn and sultry moan. Oldham’s wurlitzer provides another element of humble misery to “Choices.”
“Jealousy,” “They Call It Love,” and “Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)” are all three classic love lessons on which the Truckers show off their chops, showcasing the southern country soul that is reminiscent of new track “A Ghost to Most” set to be released on the Drive-By Truckers Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in 2008.
Every tune on The Scene of the Crime looks to be a classic, but there is just one that always sends me back to track one for another trip. “I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now” is the last track, and it’s a doozy. Every element of this song is another stroke of deep sultry unforgiving reconciliation. It’s the kind song that sends a broken heart back on healing path.
Lists be damned! LaVette, Hood and the rest of the Truckers have put something on wax that can’t be undone. They’ve proven that music is for ingesting and digesting, not for ranking and grading.
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